- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

It seems Sen. John Kerry made a strategic error in so strongly emphasizing his Vietnam service in his convention speech accepting the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

One wonders how a lawmaker who so vehemently opposed the war after returning home, and accused fellow U.S. troops of atrocities, could wrap himself in the flag and almost brag about his own conduct in that same war. He called the war and the people fighting it immoral, then bragged he fought there valorously and honorably.

One wonders how a seasoned senator running for the presidency and constantly trying to focus voters’ attention on important current issues could blindly, willingly, intentionally reopen the wounds of Vietnam. For many, America’s many mistakes in Vietnam make that chapter of U.S. foreign policy the most disgraceful and failed in our nation’s history.

First, Mr. Kerry should have been well aware that a number of veterans for decades have emotionally deplored his brief, almost blood-free yet medal-bedecked time in Vietnam. Those same veterans also detest the scathing war-crimes accusations he made when he returned to the States.

Mr. Kerry’s antiwar statements vastly exceeded political opposition to his country’s policies. He besmirched the reputations of all Americans who served, including the 55,000 killed, hundreds of thousands wounded, the prisoners, and a group we Americans often overlook: the South Vietnamese.

Say what you will about the often-corrupt South Vietnam government. During America’s long involvement, Vietnam’s people suffered almost immeasurable loss of life, property, fortune and family. And they were fighting for their freedom.

After America’s withdrawal and the subjugation of the South by the communists, many more died at the hands of the oppressors or were incarcerated for years of “re-education.”

South Vietnamese people scattered into Laos, Cambodia and by boat to countless other destinations such as Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines. Nobody knows how many were lost at sea, raped or killed by pirates or people they encountered. But the numbers are staggering.

More than 2.5 million Vietnamese successfully settled in other countries, about 1.7 million here in the United States. A relatively modern South Vietnam suddenly became a backward communist nightmare for its people and economy. America, for the most part, looked away.

The Vietnamese in America today, almost all of them brave survivors and refugees, are silent about Mr. Kerry. Most Vietnamese here won’t share their opinions on the debate even in quiet, casual conversation: They love America and don’t want to get embroiled in our mystifying political circus.

In confidence, almost all Vietnamese Americans express wonder that any citizen could support a political candidate who so recklessly accused his own nation’s fighting forces of international war crimes. Nor can the refugees understand how a U.S. veteran of Vietnam War could return home and almost immediately tell the Senate and anyone who would listen that the lives of the South Vietnamese were not worth saving.

By opposing the war, Mr. Kerry inferred it would be OK to abandon a county seeking freedom and democracy and a people America had pledged to save from communism.

One Vietnamese refugee in America told me his father rented a TV so the family could watch an example of American determination, commitment and scientific achievement on July 20, 1969. After Neil Armstrong started walking on the moon, that Vietnamese father told his children and extended family: “See: Americans have the money and technology to walk on the moon even while they fight to save us here in Vietnam. How can they fail in this war?”

Many Vietnamese shared this unprecedented confidence in American excellence and dedication. They were wrong.

Mr. Kerry missed all the lessons of war, foreign policy and commitment. U.S. commitment costs lives — not just American lives but those of people we support. When America supports an ally, an entire region is involved, with potential half-century reverberations across vast swaths of the globe. Witness today’s Korea, Japan and NATO: Many of these situations are rooted in American support, commitment and determination.

What is important for American voters now is not what Mr. Kerry may or may not have done in Vietnam. We need to examine what he said after he came back and the basis and motivations and repercussions for his doing so. We should discuss what Mr. Kerry’s record on Vietnam indicates about the future likely actions of a President Kerry?

One wonders if Mr. Kerry, if elected president, would ever consider a Vietnamlike withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq?

Quietly, privately, South Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. can tell you how they feel about Mr. Kerry, his actions, his integrity and his character. Their opinions won’t make you feel proud.


Retired U.S. Navy officer and defense consultant.

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